Tag Archives: intergenerational choir

The Unfortunate Decline of the Choir

When I was researching choirs in intergenerational churches several years ago, I used a statistic from the National Congregations Study conducted by Chavez to make the point that choirs were still in a majority of our churches in the southern US.

See data here: https://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Analysis/NCSIV/NCSIV_Var341_1.asp

The original study, conducted in 1998, researched many aspects of congregational life, one of which was music in worship. In 1998 choirs were present in over half of all US congregations. In subsequent research “waves,” the percentage of choirs in worship has decreased 12% in twenty years to just over 40% of congregations. If the trends continue their downward trajectory, this number that is likely to continue to fall. Here is a snapshot of the data trends in the study:

  1. Churches with choirs are more likely found in churches in the southern US.
  2. Theologically moderate churches are more likely to have choirs than liberal or conservative churches.
  3. Politically, the churches more conservative have the lowest percentages of choirs, although right in step with the overall percentage of churches when considered collectively.
  4. Black Protestant churches are the most likely to still have church choirs, followed closely by Roman Catholic churches.
  5. White liberal congregations are more likely (47%) to have a choir than white conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist churches (34.3%), but both are at least a third behind Black Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.

Here’s what I see:

  1. It doesn’t surprise me that the southern US has more church choirs. Most of my own contacts in music ministry are fellow southerners. The study simply reports, but does not give reasons, why this is the case. However, because this is the case, I suggest we pro-choir southern worship pastors continue to bear the responsibility of using all of our folks with some musical talent in the ministry of the choir.
  2. It doesn’t surprise me that our Black Protestant churches have a great deal of choir singing. Many of our Black churches haven’t tried to bend to pop culture, but have kept church a sacred space- valuing the whole rather than simply a few, even as they are solo-dominated in their choir singing. Choir-led worship IS the hallmark of the Black church expression of worship. They have figured out the secret to keeping the choir alive. We who value the choir need to take notes from them on how to utilize the choir in creative ways.
  3. Our white, conservative, evangelical churches have clearly moved from choir-led worship in favor of band-led, praise team only worship services. I think anybody who’s been to these types of churches has seen the shift happen over the last few decades. The percentages are evidence that this trend will continue. I believe before too long, there will only be a handful of white, evangelical churches still using the choir if a change in philosophy doesn’t occur.

The trends, especially among our white, conservative, evangelical churches, concerns me. I see no greater way to involve many people in worship leadership outside the choir. Sure, an overly polished, slick sound is perhaps better achieved with a few of your best musicians, but the Lord called me to equip all who feel the call to worship ministry. It is essential for the skilled to sit alongside the weaker singers to encourage, inspire, and help so all may work together for the glory of God. We must work together to push for authentic worship leadership which is modeled for the congregation.

Fellow pro-choir worship pastors—let’s continue to promote the biblical merits of utilizing the choir in worship. Let’s promote the merits of unity it brings in order to build the Kingdom. Selah

Choosing an All-Virtual Christmas at Ivy Creek

I’ve really enjoyed hearing and seeing many church’s Christmas music this season. Never before have our Christmas celebrations been so visible as this year. One thing I noticed immediately, every church fell into one of four camps when presenting their music this year:

  1. Some chose to do nothing at all, forgoing a special Christmas offering this year, but chose to do some special things during the normal weekend worship services.
  2. Some chose to continue with a live presentation (with modifications such as distancing for congregation and presenters) and livestream the presentation for those at home.
  3. Some chose to go a completely different direction than focusing on an indoor musical presentation (live nativities or other outdoor event).
  4. Some chose to do an all-virtual presentation (some chose to simply use videos from previous years, while others recorded new material-or some variation of the two).

Regardless of the camp chosen, I have been very impressed with the creativity I’ve seen and the effort to make Christmas special for each community of faith. Every church has had to make some tough decisions on what to do in their own particular context based on the restrictions of their community, effect of virus on their own congregation, and comfort level. There was NO wrong way to handle Christmas music this year because every context was different.

I chose option four at my church for two basic reasons:

1. Our room (both the platform and congregation space) would not allow us the opportunity to do live presentations without at least 10 different presentations, let alone the issue of how to fit 125 in the choir and orchestra distanced in a space barely able to hold this number elbow to elbow!

2. Doing a virtual recording, using our whole sanctuary space allowed us to spread out like we needed to, and not limit the number of participants in our event this year. My number one goal this Christmas was to make sure that all who wanted to sing and play had that opportunity.

I struggled in the latter part of the summer about what to do for Christmas primarily because I’m a big time planner. Our event, Christmas at Ivy Creek, is the largest single event we do in our music ministry each year. Our investment in this event and the spread of the gospel message was just too important to forgo. By August, I was concerned about our ability to do anything for Christmas. I had thrown out the idea of doing something outside because of the volatility of the weather and I threw out the idea of doing the event up to ten times. As the fall began and we started resuming bi-monthly choir rehearsals, I realized our best option would be to do something virtual–specifically pre-recording something, but it was the first week of October when I finally felt a peace about what to do. At that point, we only had seven rehearsals before we planned to record. I knew it would be too much to ask our folks to learn a whole hour of new music and be able to internalize it. So, I started looking back at previous year’s recordings and I decided we’d do a hybrid virtual concert: some videos of songs from the past and then five new songs (four choral and one orchestra feature). I figured we could learn five songs in that time frame to get ready to record.

Getting ready to record proved to be a frustrating challenge at first! Finding a way to mic an entire room (can you say balance issues!?) and video an entire room with our equipment would not have produced the best result. The balance of orchestra to choir during this season was a challenge. While almost all of our 34 players played, only 60 of our almost 95 singers were comfortable singing. After many conversations and some trial and error during rehearsals, we realized we needed to hire an audio engineer to record the audio for our new songs. This was the best money we could’ve spent to get a real-life room sound.

We decided to record our narrations off-site this year and drop them into our “cornucopia” presentation. Because we gave my video producer only 5 days to edit and create our video for our premiere, we decided to do the narrations in mid-November. This gave him the time to make sure the previous choir and orchestra videos were extracted from the past and the narrations edited before he tackled the new material.

The day of recording went as follows:

  1. Orchestra arrived first for temperature checks and tuning and then recorded their feature first from 9-9:30.
  2. Choir arrived and stayed in cars or outside (even though it was cold) and then entered to have temperature checks and begin recording at 9:30.
  3. The rest of the recording itself took about 2 hours to for the other four songs with the choir and the orchestra. We stopped between each song to clear the air.

These are the safety features we implemented. I’m sure they we are not as strict as others I’ve heard of, but now that we’re over 18 days from the recording, I can say there was no COVID transmitted during our recording!

  1. Mask wearing when not singing or playing. Worn upon arrival and when leaving
  2. HVAC systems on constant flow to move the air
  3. Physical distancing between persons (I cannot say we kept 6 feet the whole time, but we grouped family members close to each other as much as possible and we did have several family members present).
  4. Breaks between each song to clear the air.

Our experience recording went so well for us that I’m planning to bring back the audio engineer and do another round of recording for our choir and orchestra at least once more closer to Easter. We are NOT using the choir in person during our regular weekend worship services. We are using pre-recorded anthems to use for the foreseeable future. I am using orchestra and praise team every week. I miss having the choir, but allowing them the platform to sing and record has meant the world to them. They STILL get to be worship leaders, just in a different way. The goal of this blog, and this article as well, is to remind us that all persons from every generation and ability level should have a place to serve. Creativity is a must to make this happen, but it can happen. I applaud the work so many of my colleagues are doing to keep people active in worship ministry throughout this unprecedented season. I’d love to hear more ideas of how all generations are still being utilized in worship ministry.

If you’d like to see our final product, here’s a link to Christmas at Ivy Creek 2020. Below that are a few pictures from the recording day:

Resuming Choir Rehearsals During a Pandemic- How we’ve done it.

Being a firm believer that all ages should be engaged in serving the Lord in music ministry, finding ways during a pandemic has been challenging. Since March, our church like virtually all others, has had to adapt to the ever changing challenges of providing music leadership in the safest way possible. As I’ve talked with many of my fellow worship leaders, I’ve realized there is not a one-size fits all approach. Context, location of church, demographics of the church, number of people in the fellowship affected by the virus and so on, will influence decisions related to how best to utilize your musical teams. In my next blog post I’ll explain our process of reincorporating our orchestra into worship, but I wanted to share with you about our first choir rehearsal in six months on August 26th.

The church choir is about music for sure, but more importantly, it’s about setting aside our personal preferences and working in unity to serve and proclaim the message of the Gospel. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesian church urges [us] to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV).  The first song I chose for us to sing in our rehearsal was “By Our Love,” a song of unity for the church. It was quite emotional for everyone in the room. This was the first time most of our people had sung outside their home or car in 6 months.

I’m a list guy; I love them. Anyone who knows me well knows that lists keep me focused. I see information better in a list than in written prose. When I email my college students at Truett McConnell reminders about what’s due and what we’ve worked on, I tell them a Whittaker list is coming! In fact most of my blog posts include a list of something. So, I started a list of things related to this first rehearsal so I would remember what happened and wanted to share my observations with you. Behold! a Whittaker list:

  1. 95 active singers on roll, 69 returned for first rehearsal. 73% rate of initial return.
  2. When I look at the 16 singers who didn’t come, I noticed health concerns (them or a family member who is immunocompromised) as the number one factor for not attending.
  3. Singers of all ages–YES, intergenerational!
  4. All wore masks when entering and exiting.
  5. Soprano/Bass had one entrance to the foyer and Tenor/Alto had another entrance. The middle of the foyer was blocked off by rope and hand sanitizing machines. The folders were laid out for retrieving. Each entering should wait on the 6ft markers on the floor to enter.
  6. Each person was given a temperature check before entering.
  7. 75 (actually 80) minute rehearsal. One 10 minute “quiet” break after 30 minutes of singing where I did some encouragement (devotion) and announcements to let the air clean.
  8. Use entire floor of sanctuary spread out 6-10 feet apart all around each singer unless next to family member.
  9. Told we would mask entire rehearsal, but sang one tune without masks (which we recorded to use next Sunday morning for worship). All but one sang this song unmasked. In fact I got the impression from the affirmation that the singers there would’ve been fine to remain unmasked through the entire rehearsal.
  10. I asked those who were most uncomfortable singing without a mask to go to the back of the room, since the back of the choir seems to be the “safest” place to sing right now.
  11. We had HVAC going strong. One benefit in our room is that we have a large surplus of AC tonnage because of our stained glassed windows that emit much heat. You can literally feel the air moving in the room when you’re in it.
  12. The distance all around, the HVAC, and the large room with very high ceilings, basically mimicked an outdoor singing space.
  13. When we did sing with masks (90 percent of time), the sound was greatly affected. Maybe 40% of the sound gets out of the masks. Little dynamic shading or articulation of text possible, which is already hard with a room as “live” as ours is. Not a fan of the masked singing, neither were my people.
  14. The live room and the masks muffling sound made it hard to hear each other, which also contributed to dragging tempi on lyrical tunes.
  15. Normal types of masks caused glasses to fog up when singing for long periods of time. The alternative for a very few was to just use the mask to cover the mouth, and some did that.
  16. I think no one would’ve come to our rehearsal had they been truly “scared” to get COVID. The risks of singing are very well-documented so the choice to come was in spite of that risk. Therefore, I tried to mitigate the true risks with HVAC and distancing; the use of masks is a added barrier of protection.
  17. General consensus was rehearsal was a WIN! I want to skip a week before we meet again, primarily to make sure no one gets COVID.
  18. At our next rehearsal (two weeks from this rehearsal) we will also record one or two songs for use in worship. Tentatively, I would like to start separating my group into 2-3 teams and use them on Sundays beginning second weekend in October if things continue to trend downward. Not sure about mask use for that service or how we’ll mic them properly with our orchestra, but I’ll cross that bridge soon.

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Here is a snapshot of (most of) us recording our song for worship. Four generations present, worshiping and encouraging each other–what a blessing!